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U.S. Team Draws a Crowd in New York : World Cup: American soccer being what it is, send-off for Italy really isn’t overwhelming.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. soccer team stopped traffic here Thursday.

Actually, it was New York’s finest who stopped traffic so photographers could take pictures of the U.S. players under the World Cup flags that were streamed from one side of Mulberry Street to the other.

Being New Yorkers, the drivers who had their miserable, expletive-deleted, cross-town journeys interrupted for a bunch of soccer players reacted in the congenial, laid-back fashion that has made them loved and admired the world over.

“What the hell is this all about?” inquired one driver who was not honking his horn.

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He obviously was not a civic-minded citizen or he would have known that New York Mayor David Dinkins had proclaimed Thursday as “U.S. National Team World Cup Day.”

Dinkins took time out from dealing with the racial tension that threatens to engulf his city in a genuine “Bonfire of the Vanities” to attend a send-off luncheon at a restaurant in Little Italy for the U.S. team that will begin World Cup play next month in Big Italy.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and President George Bush were not there, but they sent telegrams.

O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and Kathy Lee Crosby were not there, either. But they appeared with some of the players on a rap video that was filmed in Malibu. It was produced by Shelli Azoff of Beverly Hills and midfielder Paul Caligiuri of Santa Monica, the hero of last November’s 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago that put the United States into the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

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“Togetherness and unity

“Mean victory in Italy.”

Then, the real rap began.

Noting that the team has showed significant improvement in recent exhibitions, winning two of its last three games and tying the other, Werner Fricker, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said: “Needless to say, I am pleased with the team’s performance to date.”

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But then he chose to bring some of the ominous rain clouds that were hovering outside into the restaurant with him.

“You ask me if I’m satisfied with the players,” Fricker said. “Absolutely not. They can do better. You ask me if I’m satisfied with the coach and the support staff. The answer is the same. Absolutely not. They can do better.”

Asked later if he meant to be that blunt at a function that was, essentially, a pep rally, he said: “I don’t make it a practice to make statements I don’t mean. Some people don’t appreciate my straightforwardness.

“If I see people with the God-given talent to perform superior to what they are performing, I expect more. I firmly believe they haven’t played up to their maximum. But I think they will at the World Cup. They have progressed very methodically, at the right pace. The coach (Bob Gansler) has timed it correctly.”

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Fricker stood behind his prediction of a month ago that the United States will fare well enough in the first round against Italy, Czechoslovakia and Austria to advance to the second round.

“I believed it then, and I believe it now,” he said. “Qualifying for the World Cup was not a dream. That was a job, a task, an opportunity, a goal, and we wanted to achieve that.

“Now, playing well in the first three games and going to the second round, that’s not a dream. That’s another task.”

As Adidas picked up the check, the athletic apparel manufacturer used the occasion to unveil the white-with-blue-trim uniforms that the U.S. team will wear in Italy. It seemed like the right time to ask Fricker about the oft-repeated story that he will not allow the U.S. team to wear red because of his staunch anti-Communist, anti-Soviet sentiments.

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Fricker said he has heard that story so often that he is rarely amused by it any more.

“I played most of my lifetime as a soccer player in a red jersey with black shorts for a German-Hungarian team outside Philadelphia,” he said. “I have nothing against red. It’s part of our national flag.

“I like all white or all blue or all red because it makes the players’ numbers easier to identify. Canada wears all red. My preference is all white because we play a lot of games in warm and humid conditions, and white is better for the players.

“People who want to embarrass me spread that story to the media. I have a pair of shorts that I wear around the pool that are red with white stripes.”

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One person who might like to embarrass Fricker is his federation rival, Paul Stiehl, who wants to be the next president. But he was at Thursday’s send-off to support the team. So was Ricky Davis, the former U.S. captain who has been critical of Gansler for not giving him a chance to play for the World Cup team.

“I’m not happy with the federation,” said Davis, who will be going to Italy as a television commentator, “but most of the players are my friends. I wish them well.”

Togetherness and unity.

When the party ended, the players were surprised to see a large group of celebrity-seekers gathered outside the restaurant. No one had the heart to tell them that most of the gawkers were there to see the filming in the next block of “The Godfather III.”

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